We spent a couple posts looking at warning verses and comparing them with assurance verses. Let’s do the same with the issue of faith and works, which is closely related.
For by grace you are saved, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
This passage should always be quoted with verse 10 attached, but we’ll get to that later.
We moderns tend to think a certain way about salvation by faith alone. We read “salvation” or “justification” and we think that means that we are “going to heaven” by faith alone.
That assumption is unjustified.
First, it contradicts all the warning verses, which are many. Why would Paul tell us that our sins (“unrighteousness” or “works of the flesh”) will prevent us from “any inheritance” in the kingdom of God and of his King (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5-6) if works have nothing to with our entering the kingdom? Why would Jesus say that only those who do the will of his Father in heaven enter the kingdom of heaven? (Matt. 7:21). Why would Jesus say that the righteous are rewarded eternal life for visiting the sick and imprisoned and helping the naked, hungry, and thirsty? (Matt. 25:31-46).
None of that makes sense if we “go to heaven” by faith “apart from works.”
So how do we reconcile those verses saying we enter the kingdom because of what we do with verses like Ephesians 2:8-9?
It’s pretty simple, really. Someone just needs to tell you about it. I’m afraid those of you who read me regularly have read this over and over. Sorry.
This passage does a wonderful job of reconciling the “enter the kingdom of heaven” verses with the “apart from works” verses. You’ll also find the explanations we come up with exactly mirror the explanations we came up with when we reconciled warning verses with security verses two days ago and yesterday.
Much more then, being justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
Look at the unusual use of tenses here. We are already justified, but we shall be saved from wrath. We “were” reconciled, but we “shall be” saved.
Paul also distinguishes between what was accomplished by Jesus’ death, and what is accomplished by his resurrection life. His blood, Paul says, has made us justified, or righteous right now. His death has reconciled us to God. He by his life, however, will save us from wrath.
This is a very important point because it explains the difference between the “apart from works” verses and the verses that say we enter the kingdom of heaven by doing good works and avoiding bad ones. A past and present salvation tied to faith, and a future judgment and entrance into the kingdom of heaven by works is consistent throughout the apostles’ writings.
Really? The Bible teaches that we enter the kingdom of heaven by doing good works and avoiding bad ones?
Yes, a lot of times.
Entering the Kingdom of Heaven by Works
I know this terminology gives people the willies, but look how many times Scripture uses it!
- “Not everyone that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)
- “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world because I was hungry, and you fed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:34-35)
- “The hour is coming in which everyone in the graves will hear his voice and shall come out; those that have done good to a resurrection of life, and those that have done evil to a resurrection of condemnation.” (Jn. 5:28-29)
- “God … will repay everyone according to their deeds. To those who, by patiently continuing to do good, seek after glory, honor, and immortality, [he will repay] eternal life. But to those who are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [he will repay] indignation and wrath.” (Rom. 2:5-8)
- “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, then you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13)
- “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived.” (1 Cor. 6:9)
- “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of the King, to receive the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” (2 Cor. 5:10-11)
- “Now the works of the flesh are apparent … of these I tell you, as I have told you in times past that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19,21; note that “do” is in the Greek present tense, meaning ongoing or repeated action, not a one-time action.)
- “He who sows to the flesh will reap corruption from the flesh. He who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap [eternal life] if we do not lose heart.” (Gal. 6:7-9; brackets added by me to help readers notice the context)
- “For you know this: no immoral or unclean person, nor a greedy person, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of the King and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words. It is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 5:5-6)
- “Take heed, brothers, that there be no evil heart of unbelief in any of you in departing from the living God.” (Heb 3:12)
- “Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14)
Quick break here for a note. Most of the book of Hebrews could be used with these verses. I have only used two passages.
- “If you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, then conduct yourself throughout the time of your sojourning here in fear.” (1 Pet. 1:17)
- “Be diligent to make your calling and election sure because if you do these things you will never stumble. In this way an abundant entrance will be supplied to you into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the King.” (2 Pet. 1:10-11)
- “If after they have escaped the pollutions of this world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior, Jesus the King, they are again entangled in them and overcome, their latter end is worse for them than the beginning. It would have been better for them never to know the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Pet. 2:20-21)
- “You have a few names, even in Sardis, who have not defiled their garments. They shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He that overcomes … I will not blot his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” (Rev. 3:4-5)
- “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God, and the books were opened. Another book was opened, which was the Book of Life, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. … Whoever was not written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:12,15)
There is so much consistency in these verses, that there are less “apart from works” verses to explain than there are works verses to explain.
Explaining the “Apart from Works” Verses
I skipped one of the works verses so that I could use it here as the ultimate example of a seeming contradiction in Scripture. You may have noticed that I didn’t use any verses from James in the list above. I didn’t need them; there were already so many.
We do need one now, however:
You see, then, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (Jam. 2:24)
How can that verse not be seen as a contradiction to this one?
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. (Rom. 3:28)
I have heard this explained by saying Paul was only talking about works of the Law, not works in general. That explanation doesn’t work, however, because Paul just says “apart from works” in Ephesians 2:9. He also adds that it is apart from works for a purpose. The purpose is that no one would be able to boast. Doers of good works can be boasters whether those works are prescribed in the Law of Moses or not.
And then there’s Romans 4. That chapter teaches that Abraham was justified by faith apart from works, and Abraham preceded the Law of Moses.
The difference between James 2:24 and Romans 3:28 is not the meaning of the word “works”; it is the meaning of the word “justified.”
This is a long post, I know, but perhaps you remember Romans 5:9-10, which you read about 5 minutes ago if you’ve read this whole thing.
There is a justification which was is given to us through faith, a justification which was purchased by the blood of our great King and God’s Son, Jesus. His death also reconciled us to God. There is, however, a wrath that we are to saved from in the future. That salvation is yet to come, and we obtain that salvation not by his death, but by his life.
If you’ll read through the verses that precede James 2:24, you’ll find that James is talking about the whole course of our walk with the King, a walk that begins with faith, but that continues, by the power of the Spirit, in a life of holiness and good works. Paul, however, is only talking about initial justification in Romans 3:28. We were justified and continue now in our justification by faith apart from works.
That justification means that God looks on you with acceptance and favor. That is why we have access with boldness to God’s throne (Heb. 4:16). There we obtain not only mercy, but the grace that helps in time of need, the grace in which we stand (Rom. 5:2).
That all came by faith. But if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you need to add virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love to your faith (2 Pet. 1:5-11). Your need to continue in the faith, grounded and settled (Col. 1:22-23). You need to put the deeds of the body to death by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13).
Let me try to give you two explanations that I hope will make this idea more simple.
1. The significance of baptism:
At baptism, we died and and rose with Jesus. As we are buried with him in baptism, our old life is buried as well. We rise from baptism into new life. 2 Cor. 5:17 tells us that “old things are gone; new things have come.” The death part of baptism means that old things—our old sins, our old desires, our old plans, everything—are gone. We are reconciled to God, and we are now forgiven, clean and righteous, all apart from any works which we have done.
We rise from baptism with a new life. Paul says that even though he was crucified with Christ (and buried with him in baptism), yet he lives because Jesus lives in him (Gal. 2:20). That life saves us.
Paul gives a further explanation of that in Titus 2:11-12, where he tells us that the grace we received by faith teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live righteously, godly, and soberly in this present age. Grace breaks sin’s power over us (Rom. 6:14). As a result, if we will do as Paul did, and walk in the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, his life will complete the work he began in us so that we can be presented blameless before his throne (see yesterday’s post).
2. I think this quote from yesterday’s blog explains the idea well, too.
“If we will continue hearing and believing, grounded and rooted in the faith, we can count on God to bring us to the judgment in a blameless, holy state.
“That promise, perhaps expressed more fully in Colossians 1:22 than it is in John 5:24, is the real promise of God that we can rejoice in. We have not bought fire insurance so that the kingdom is guaranteed to us. We have been translated into the kingdom of his beloved Son, and as long as we continue to walk in the ways of that kingdom, we will continue to experience continual cleansing. We will be the ones ‘to whom the Lord does not impute sin’ (Col. 1:13; 1 Jn. 1:7; Rom. 4:3-8).”